Fleabag fans, you’ll remember this series-stealing scene. “Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny. Period pain, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives,” says Belinda (Kristin Scott Thomas) to Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). “And we have it all going on in here, inside. We have pain on a cycle for years and years and years. And then, just as you feel you’re making peace with it all, what happens? The menopause comes.”
Twitter erupted into a flurry of praise for this honest account of female hormones – sparking a conversation around topics that have long been taboo. But it’s not just Fleabag that’s igniting such discussions. Recently there’s been a significant shift in the narrative surrounding female hormones and Eleanor Morgan is one of the forces at its core.
To be “hormonal” has long been seen as a criticism. A dig at women for being “too sensitive”, while undermining their existence and fuelling their inner self-doubt. Fed up of being told: “It’s just your hormones” and feeling duped by her innate biology, Morgan set out to research the muddy medical world in hope some solid answers.
Hormonal: A Conversation About Women’s Bodies, Mental Health and Why We Need to Be Heard is the result of the writer’s deep dive. Drawing from both science and the author’s personal experiences, the book breaks down the myths and common assumptions that underpin society. Spanning PMS, menstruation, menopause, hormonal replacement therapy and the #MeToo movement, Hormonal acts as a manual on how to feel empowered as an oestrogen laden lady. The bottom line being: “There is a power in knowing ourselves better.”
So, did she find answers to combat her internal woes? In short – yes, read on to find out…
Tell us a bit about your own experiences with hormones?
I experience really bad PMS and terrible anxiety before my period. I get into that horrible state of examining my entire life, relationships, work – all of it. I’ve lived with anxiety for years and years and didn’t really do anything about it. But I realised that my monthly cycle was absolutely a part of it and that it definitely seems to be getting worse as I get older.
What exactly made you decide to write and research this book?
It has a personal aspect which is my own “journey” into trying to treat my premenstrual anxiety. After my first book I retrained as a psychologist and I started doing more in depth research about women’s health and realised just how imprecise the science is, especially in terms of how our hormonal fluctuations affect our brain chemistry and mood. There are a whole wealth of conversations that women have about periods, our internal bodies, vaginas and blood that still happen in secret, which in society are a last taboo. I thought it was important to have that in a book and to think about how all of these things affect our experience of ourselves and our experience of our body.
Why do you think there is such a stigma surrounding periods, PMS?
The stigma around female biology is as old as we are as a race. Historically female blood was seen as dirty – like a contaminate. In 2019 our medical system still has tiny echoes of the past predominantly male medical system, where women’s pain wasn’t necessarily taken seriously because the meaning of that pain was decided for us. Men would be locking women up in asylums when they were depressed, anxious or even just wanted a divorce. We’ve historically been expected to be neat and contained. People just don’t want to think about that messy stuff but it’s a reality for half of the population.
How do you think your book will help break down these stigmas?
This is a book that’s empowering through information. It’s a guide to finding a different meaning in terms of experiences that we all have, and not being so quick to judge ourselves as a hormonal mess. Having knowledge of how the systems around us work is power and acknowledging our position within. As a woman who wants to seek some type of treatment for heavy periods or PMS, acknowledging how the system you will enter is set up is so important.
Was there one thing that you read, researched or talked to someone about that you found really empowering whilst researching this book?
There was a moment when I went to interview this very prominent gynecologist [Dr Nick Panay] and he said that it’s never just your “mood before your period”. He explained that if you’re feeling like you’re having very bad PMS, it’s important to rememer the fact that it’s not just biology. Initially it was a knee-jerk reaction where I thought “Oh god, I really must just be mad.” And then thought, actually no it kind of means the opposite. If biology can’t explain everything like we think it can, then what else is there? It made me think about the social history of all this, what are the social pressures that make me analyse my mood and behaviours so rigorously? “It’s just my hormones.” No – it could never be just your hormones.
What is the best way to make men understand something that is so inherently female?
It’s reliant on compassion and empathy. I would hope that if a man has an interest in their partner, friend, sister or mum’s general wellbeing, they would want to know. I think if someone loves you and you say “Look, this is how I feel sometimes. This is what I think it may be, I hope you would be interested in learning why.” I often think it’s reliant on just starting a conversation, because we often have expectations around what people should already know or what people should feel. I think you’d be surprised at how open men can be if you take the initiative because it might not occur to them to bring it up.
What’s your go-to PMS care package?
I don’t let myself get hungry because there’s a hormone which we produce when we’re hungry called Ghrelin, which is the “hangry” hormone that makes us feel anxious and it’s something we feel more significantly when we’re premenstrual. So I eat a lot. I eat shit loads. I don’t really hold back. On the emotional side of things, I practice mindfulness. Working in psychology I recommend it all the time. Moving, sleeping, eating and communicating and trying not to isolate myself because I always feel worse when I do that.
Hormonal: A Conversation About Women’s Bodies, Mental Health and Why We Need to Be Heard is out today